All for One, A Sport for All: The Olympic Sport of Fencing

Fencing for RIO

I was an awkward kid. By awkward, I mean, I never graduated to the next level in swimming; I was a disaster in gymnastics; and I certainly wasn’t dainty enough to be a dancer. So, in an effort to get a strong and solid little girl to stay active and not to drive two kids to different activities, my parents signed me and my sister up for fencing. It was truly love at first lunge. Why fencing?

Iris Zimmermann

Member of the Legacy Pediatrics family, Olympian and Co-Owner of the Rochester Fencing Club, Iris Zimmermann

For me, it was about three things: 1. Depending on myself and not a team. As an individual sport, I liked that I could have ownership of winning and losing. 2. Being a strong girl was a plus, especially because learning the skill pushed me to channel and control the strength I had. 3. Someone gave you a sword and said, “Poke this person.” YES!

So, why do other kids (besides highly driven Olympic athletes) choose fencing? The reasons run the gamut and include some of the following examples. Kid A chose fencing because they “fenced” with sticks in their back yard, dreamt of being a Star Wars Jedi Knight, a swashbuckling pirate, or knight of the Round Table. Kid B chose fencing because she/he has tried other sports and decided they were boring or perhaps they didn’t feel as physically gifted as the other kids. Kid C chose fencing because they were burnt out of little league or gymnastics programs and wanted to try something new and unique. Another scenario involves Kid D whose parent recognized that fencing had the potential to be a great activity for their “really smart and doesn’t want to get off the computer” kid.

No matter how the kids or parents found fencing, there is a bottom line reason that keeps the kids consistently engaged. That reason being that fencing is FUN!

School Fencing

Okay, fun is sort of an easy-out answer and involves more than just happiness. The elements that go into fun are complex and include the coach/instructor, the other kids in the class, how the class is run (the work-to-game ratio) and ultimately the kid’s ability to enjoy the process of learning a new skill. I will be the first person to admit that fencing is NOT an easy skill to acquire and takes years of effort and failure (one of my favorite words) before there is the ultimate satisfaction of understanding and perhaps winning.

The unique thing that fencing has to offer is what I like to call the “equalization factor”. The equalization factor is that fencing is difficult for everyone and even if you are athletic, tall, short, a little stockier like I was, thinner like my sister was, left handed, or right handed, you all start at the same base-En Garde. My sister was a gangly thing, all legs and arms with big glasses under her mask, yet she managed to work her way onto two Olympic teams (1996 and 2000). In fencing, what you do with that base and how you leverage your strengths and weaknesses are up to you and isn’t that an important life lesson?

What I enjoy most about fencing is how much a kid can continue to grow and change in sport, meaning, who they are today does not determine how well they will do tomorrow. Gabriel (Gabe) Sinkin is a great example of that type of kid. As one of my teammates growing up at the Rochester Fencing Club and one of four kids in his family who fenced, no one could have imagined that he would be an alternate to the 2004 Olympic Team. Gabe, who currently resides in California, was a butterball of a kid, nerdy, and had an awkward fencing style; all of which did not scream eventual Olympic hopeful. However, after growing up fencing at the club, four years at New York University and fencing with the top fencers in NYC, he moved back to Rochester to train for the 2004 Olympics.

fencing-club-rosters

Gabe is one of many stories at the Rochester Fencing Club. There is an important note about people like Gabe who have come in for the fun of fencing, but left as champions or recruits to Division I schools like Stanford, Notre Dame, or Cornell. What set these kids apart is the number of times they picked themselves up after a loss and got back onto the fencing strip. The motivation has to be internal because there are no medals or certificates for just participating in a sport that roots its history in sword to sword combat. In the end, the more times you come back to the fencing strip, the more successful you will be. How about that for another life lesson?

Fencing is my passion and my life’s pursuit, but I am under no illusion that fencing will appeal to everyone. When I give speeches about Olympism and fencing as part of our Road to Rio demos, I spend time encouraging each kid to stay active as part of a well-rounded life. Many of the people who I have met through my years at Stanford, Simon Business School, and the Olympics, have all been active people whether it be competitive sports or just getting outside to walk, run, or play. I feel it is extremely important to make sure all kids have a strong sense of getting out and playing no matter what the activity. Fencing just happens to be one activity which can appeal to all those kids who have found themselves wanting more or sitting on the sidelines of other sports.

Need more reasons to have your kid try fencing or to stay active? I have included some links below to articles about the benefits of physical activity for cognitive development and mood. If your interest is peaked, please visit our website or better yet, give me a call or visit the club. I’d love to show you around. We have many ways to try fencing including a one-time, no commitment “Intro. to fencing Class”. There are programs and classes for kids as young as four either through group classes at the club or your local town recreation center. Summer is a great time to try something new and we have many different locations and types of fencing camps as well, including our Knights and Ninjas camp featuring archery, fencing, and karate.  Stop by our table at the Genesee Valley Parent Magazine Summer Camp Expo on Sunday, April 3rd 11am-5pm at the Eastview Mall to see youth fencers in action, ask questions about our summer programs and introduce yourself.

Rush native, Iris Zimmermann has made quite a name for herself in the world of fencing.  In 1995 at the age of 14, she earned the distinction of being the first US fencer, man or woman to win a World Championship in any weapon or age category.  She went on to win the Cadet World Championship again in 1997, was the Junior World Champion, a bronze medalist at the Senior Worlds in 1999, a member of the US foil team for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, and 2000 NCAA Champion for Stanford University. Although she didn’t medal, she had the joy of sharing the Olympic experience with her older sister who was also on the team.   Together they were two points shy of capturing the bronze medal.  Today, Iris is married and the mother of two young children who are patients at Legacy Pediatrics.  She was inducted into the US Fencing Hall of Fame in 2013.  Along with her sister, Felicia Zimmermann, Iris co-owns the Rochester Fencing Club where she’s training the next generation of American fencers.

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ARTICLES ON THE BRAIN AND FENCING/EXERCISE

Here is a New York Times article on “How Exercise Can Boost the Child’s Brain”. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/08/how-exercise-can-boost-the-childs-brain/?_r=2

Did you know fencing is really good for the brain? Check out this article: http://www.neurobic.com/blog/brain-exercise/fencing-may-help-cognitive-health/